The classroom drama has become such a popular genre for social analysis that it can be boiled down to a few essential ingredients: Good-natured but internally conflicted instructor takes on intellectually capable but emotionally stunted class and figures out a way to tame them. "Monsieur Lazhar," the fourth feature from Quebec-based filmmaker Phillippe Falardeau, fulfills these clichés while at the same time transcending them. It has neither the gritty edge of "Half Nelson" nor the screwball energy of "Hamlet 2" but a combination of realism and wit that relates it to both of them. The light, charming exterior services darker tragedies at the root of the story.
There are two of them: For a group of Montreal elementary students, the abrupt suicide of their beloved teacher Martine – discovered by one of the children hanging from a scarf in their classroom during the prologue – brings the trauma of death into their young lives with crude, unmanageable suddenness. Her replacement, the plucky Algerian refugee Bachir Lazhar (the Algerian actor and writer Fellag), has his own problems involving race and family to sort out. From the outset, his relationship to his new disciples is reciprocal.
Based on a play by Évelyne de la Cheneliére, "Monsieur Lazhar" begins with a bleak situation and suddenly brightens up. As the school reels from its widely publicized catastrophe, the genial Bachir seemingly materializes out of thin air, boasting about 19 years of teaching experience in Algeria and eager to begin his 20th.
Desperation works in his favor and the instructor gets to work. In most stories that belong to this tradition, the first act would involve a prolonged adjustment period where the rebellious students refuse to pay heed to their new caretaker until some handy breakthrough changes the terms of the relationship. "Monsieur Lazhar" has a slower progression, with the new teacher finding a class more traumatized than outright rebellious, and thus in immediate need of his support.
"Lazhar," the Bachir tells his students, means "lucky" in Arabic, and initially it appears that Bachir deserves his surname. Outside of the classroom, however, he faces the greater challenge of seeking political asylum after fleeing Algerian criminal attacks that left his wife and children dead. Fragments of courtroom scenes establish Bachir as a refugee while the details of his past remain secret to everyone but him.
Falardeau's screenplay oscillates between Bachir's efforts to help the children overcome their teacher's untimely passing and their own internal struggles to the same amongst each other. Not the only one with a secret to keep, Bachir slowly catches onto the students' feelings of culpability for Martine's death. Fellag's subtle, touching performance is matched by those of his character's closest students, particularly Sophie Nélisse as the fragile Alice, whose classroom writing assignment nearly moves the teacher to tears–less for the advancement of its prose than for the purity of its expression. Encouraging the children to discuss the past allows him to examine his experiences as well. (So do the awkward parent-teacher conferences, where a xenophobic man refuses Bachir's insight into a student because he's "not from around here.")
These events take place under the auspices of a intelligent but generally cheery comedy. Notwithstanding the heavy events at hand, "Monsieur Lazhar" cleverly pokes fun at elementary school politics, from the boundaries of student-teacher interaction (teachers grousing at a meeting about the riskiness of physical interaction with students) to Lazhar's unreasonably adult curriculum (asking his 11 and 12-year-old students to dictate Balzac). Life-affirming in accordance with classic Frank Capra formula, "Monsieur Lazhar" doesn't abuse the backdrop of wartime scars as an excuse for heavy-handed dramatic weight. The affecting nature of the material is well-earned.
Accurately described by a colleague as "'Incendies' meets 'The Class,'" Falardeau's perceptive work grapples with issues of racial conflict and education as a single, unified whole. Despite the cultural specificity of the setting, Bachir's ability to workshop his grief by dealing with that of his students turns the classroom into a microcosm of larger concerns for everyone involved, and a better sanctuary for Bashir's purposes than any government can provide.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? After playing to great acclaim at festivals ranging from Toronto to Sundance before getting an extra boost from an Academy Award nomination, "Monsieur Lazhar" finally comes out in limited U.S. release this weekend via Music Box Films. Strong reviews and months of buzz should help it find a respectable audience.
Editor's note: A version of this review originally ran during the 2011 Locarno International Film Festival. "Monsieur Lazhar" opens Friday.